Last Word: The Passing of a Legend

Eoin McKiernan pictured with Maureen O'Hara at Irish America's Irish Americans of the Century awards dinner at New York's Plaza Hotel in December, 1999.

By Niall O’Dowd
October / November 2004

“He was a unique individual, both a pioneer and a genius. He will be missed and can never be replaced.” – John Walsh, CEO of the Irish American Cultural Institute


To my mind they were the two greatest influences on Irish America in the past half-century or so. One was Paul O’Dwyer, the legendary New York human rights lawyer, and the other was Dr. Eoin McKiernan, a scholar, writer, and above all an innovator when it came to reinterpreting Irish heritage.

Eoin McKiernan passed away on Sunday, July 18 at the age of 89, and his demise brings to an end one of the most powerful voices in the history of the Irish in America, a man who perhaps more than any other created the concept of Irish America as we know it today. Deservedly in 1999 he was named one of the most influential Irish Americans of the century by Irish America magazine.

Eoin was a bespectacled academic, a man who at first sight was seemingly more at home with books and scholarship than innovative genius.

First impressions were misleading. Eoin founded the Irish American Cultural Institute in 1962. It was a time when the legacy of Ireland seemed to be endless reruns of The Quiet Man and a sentimental shillelagh schmaltz which owed far more to the music halls of the early part of the century than any genuine vision of Ireland.

Eoin recognized before anyone else that millions of Irish Americans had a huge attachment to the land of their forefathers, but very few knew anything about it. It was a time when trans-Atlantic travel was still a rarity, and the bonds between both countries were looser than ever before.

Eoin recognized, however, how much of a yearning there was among Americans for genuine Irish culture, but that very few had ever been to Ireland to experience that.

Into the gap stepped Eoin and his institute. Perhaps their most important step was creating the Irish Way program in 1975. The program is a unique cultural and educational program for American high school students. Each summer, Irish Way students travel to Ireland for a five-week program. They learn about Irish history, literature and language through classes and field trips; experience Ireland’s culture through traditional Irish music and dancing; live with an Irish family; and travel the Irish countryside.

Thousands of American children have had their first introduction to the land of their forefathers through this program. It has had an incredible impact on relations between Ireland and Irish America.

The late Eoin McKiernan.

Eoin also created and funded programs which include the donation of hundreds of thousand of dollars to the arts in Ireland, and creating speaking tours throughout the U.S. for Irish writers, artists and cultural ambassadors of note.

The speaking tours took in not only the major Irish cities on the East Coast, but many smaller and diverse geographic locations across the country. In such a fashion thousands of Irish Americans got their first experience of the rich culture from which they had all sprung.

Then there was Eire / Ireland, the quarterly publication from the institute, which showcased the best of Irish-American writers, commentators, and poets. It was an antidote to the cultural desert that existed across much of Irish America.

It was also a time when there was little money to fund the arts in Ireland itself. The cultural explosion in music, song, theater, and dance was still a generation away. It is no exaggeration to state that Eoin McKiernan prepared the ground like no other person, both in Ireland and America, for that thrilling development.

In later years Eoin continued to be a tireless worker for what he believed in. Advancing age never seemed to slow him – I often met him either coming from or going to Ireland.

He would come to my office and within a half-hour would have me buzzing about the next great step he saw in making Ireland and Irish America more accessible to each other.

I will always treasure one great moment with Eoin. It was 1993 and the first time ever that an American president had invited the Irish into the White House on St. Patrick’s Day.

Waiting first in line to greet President Bill Clinton were Eoin McKiernan and Paul O’Dwyer, two happy warriors who were at last getting the respect and acknowledgment that they deserved.

John Walsh, currently the chairman and CEO of the Institute, remembers Eoin McKiernan fondly. “He was a unique individual, both a pioneer and a genius. He will be missed and can never be replaced.” Amen to that. ♦

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